Web services - the only way to make Wi-Fi good for business?

Iona has developed a Web service software that avoids problems caused by connecting to a corporate network from different Wi-Fi hot spots
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

Web services are the missing link to make Wi-Fi suitable for business use, according to integration specialist Iona, whose Mobile Orchestrator product featured at Intel's Centrino launch.

Mobile computing using Wi-Fi is not good enough for business use until applications are shielded from the unreliability and insecurity of the wireless connection, according to Iona. The company has launched Mobile Orchestrator, a product designed to support distributed business processes across unreliable links.

The product was featured at the New York launch of Intel's Centrino mobile marketing initiative, which combines Pentium-M processors tuned to conserve battery life with an 802.11b wireless module.

"With Centrino, we will finally get devices that can deliver mobile computing," said Patrick O'Brien, vice president of corporate strategy at Iona. "The missing link is software to take advantage of it."

Other attempts to extend business software to the wireless world have taken the wrong approach, by using thin clients (that is, browser access to applications), said O'Brien. These assume the client is continually connected, and break when the connection fails, or become unusable when the bandwidth is too low.

Although some approaches to the problem use compression and other tricks to improve the reliability of communications, the Iona product does more to automate the process, said O'Brien.

Mobile Orchestrator assumes a "rich client" and handles interactions using the Web services standards such as SOAP, but running them over FTP, the Internet file transfer protocol, instead of HTTP, the Web protocol. "SOAP over HTTP is not a reliable connection," said O'Brien. "Instead of a reply/request model, we have a store and forward model. This masks the distinction between being connected or not, and optimises the transfer of information."

"FTP is reliable and secure," said O'Brien. "The transport for Web services does not have to be HTTP." The implementation of SOAP over FTP, developed jointly by Intel and Iona, also checks the document size and the connection speed available to determine the practicality of what it is being asked to do. This lets it automate complex interactions with servers, and co-ordinate offline and online requests. Other transport standards could be used, such as the JMS Java messaging standard, said O'Brien.

All this will not reach end users for a while, as Iona first has to persuade systems integrators and value added resellers to adopt the technology. In doing so, they will have to integrate it with workflow and other products. Standards may help here, although they are still being developed, said O'Brien. "We use a business process language which is close to the BPEL standard being developed, and we will migrate to the eventual standard," said O'Brien. He expected the BPEL standard to be ready in about six months, and Orchestrator to be in users' hands sooner than that.

Beta users of Orchestrator are using the software for sales force automation, said O'Brien, promising customers in the second quarter of 2003.

"Iona is not expecting revenue from this in the first or second quarter," said Barry Morris, Iona chief executive. "This is Iona's first product to go exclusively through an indirect channel, and will take some time." Partners that have already signed up include Macromedia, CSC, Unisys and Vignette.

Iona is a 12-year old distributed computing company with experience in object request brokers and Java. Until 1997, it was part-owned by Sun, but is now independent.

As a member of the Centrino campaign, Iona is entitled to refer to itself by the slightly bizarre title of "Fellow Traveller". The phrase was coined by Leon Trotsky in 1948 to pejoratively describe people who sympathised with the Communist Party at the time but were not prepared to sign up for membership.

What standards will drive the next wave of Web-based services, and how will they interact? Check out the latest developments on .Net, Java, Liberty Alliance, Passport and other technologies at ZDNet UK's Web Services News Section, including analysis, case studies and management issues.

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